Big Bend
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Ghosts and Dreams: Big Bend and the Rio Grande, 1980-2001

If the pattern of relationships at Big Bend meant anything, they revealed after 1980 the need for the NPS and Mexico to reassess their historic roles as neighbors and adversaries. Starting in 1981, the new park superintendent, Gilbert Lusk, would reach across the Rio Grande with a gesture of goodwill (the "Good Neighbor Fiesta" and discussions about reenergizing the international park concept) that would persist for the remainder of the twentieth century. Regional director John Cook, who returned to Santa Fe in 1986 and who selected superintendents for Big Bend during that two-decade era, made improvements in border relations one of the criteria for management. Through the eras of Jim Carrico (1986-1990), Rob Arnberger (1990-1994), Jose Cisneros (1994-1999), and Frank Deckert (appointed in 2000), each superintendent would recognize the value of sustaining interest in better working relationships between the two countries. Nothing would be simple, however, in this quest for accommodation. The wild and scenic river debate would simmer once the designation was in place, while matters of trespass stock, drug traffic, and immigration rose and fell with the tides of public policy. Even the efforts by Jose Cisneros and his staff to make real the international park, aided in 1994 by Mexico's announcement of its "protected areas" in Coahuila (Maderas del Carmen) and Chihuahua (Canon de Santa Elena) south of the Rio Grande, did not forge the bonds of partnership before Cisneros's retirement. Yet the journey of understanding begun when Gil Lusk sat for eight hours in the outer office of the governor of the state of Coahuila, waiting for an interview that never happened, would make Big Bend more conscious of the neighbor at its door, and remind Mexico that the promise of opportunity that so many of its people sought in the fields and factories of El Norte might also be found on the "last frontier."

Superintendent Gil Lusk, in the opinion of his successors, put in motion long-range plans that compelled the NPS to see the Rio Grande in new ways. When he arrived in 1981 at Big Bend, "border interdiction was 80 to 90 percent of the world-view of the rangers." Lusk sought to reduce this at least in half, emphasizing the need for cultural understanding. Among Lusk's initiatives that first year and soon thereafter was encouragement of Spanish-language training for the ranger staff, and initiation of the "International Good Neighbor Day Fiesta" that October. Over the next five years, Lusk and his staff would implement in 1985 the "Border States Conference on Parks, Recreation, and Wildlife." Dennis Vasquez, a ranger at Big Bend in the early 1980s who would return a decade later to serve as chief of interpretation, wrote in 1994 that this strategy "provides a forum for scientists, researchers, and resource professionals from the border region in both countries to present papers and exchange information." Vasquez believed that "many doors have been opened and many alliances have been built as a result of these conferences." Both the fall fiesta and the border conferences would become mainstays of park operations, helping support Lusk's idea that "our strategy was broad enough to allow us to build on success and not have minor failures along the way derail the entire process." [1]

Two issues along the border, however, challenge Lusk and his staff as they rebuilt the "good neighbor" relationship with Mexico so eagerly promoted by Franklin D. Roosevelt and others. In 1981, the General Management Plan for the Rio Grande Wild and Scenic River was written and submitted through NPS channels for approval in Washington. Its rejection at the highest levels left river operations and funding in limbo until the mid-1990s, when Superintendent Jose Cisneros initiated a new management plan that rectified the mistakes of the first endeavor. Then in 1987, the reputed drug dealer Pablo Acosta was captured and killed in the Mexican village of Santa Elena, with United States and Mexican drug agents involved. In each case, the strain upon the "good neighbor" initiative threatened to undo the hard work of Lusk and his staff. Yet by the mid-1990s, the call for better relations on the river (on both the Mexican and American sides) would result in the most aggressive effort to unite the two nations since the 1930s.

When the WSR planning team, headed by John Murphy of the NPS's Denver Service Center, submitted their report in November 1981, they noted that the original idea of an expansive river boundary could not be achieved. The WSR designation would be "only the river area from the United States/Mexico international boundary in the center of the river to the gradient boundary at the edge of the river on the United States side." Its length would be "from the Chihuahua/Coahuila state line to the Val Verde county line." Segments of this 195-mile stretch of the Rio Grande from Talley to Solis (Mariscal Canyon), from the entrance to Boquillas Canyon to its exit, and from Reagan Canyon to San Francisco Canyon below the park boundary line, would become "wild" portions of the river. "The remaining sections," said the 1981 report, "shall be designated as SCENIC." The park would manage this resource as part of its larger operations. Two public-access points would be negotiated with private landowners below the park boundary: the La Linda community and the Dryden Crossing. [2]

In studying the river for management as wild and scenic, the NPS learned much about its character and problems. Water quantity was a function of releases from the Rio Conchos in the Mexican state of Chihuahua, some 50 percent of the total stream-flow annually. The planning team determined that "the reach of the Rio Grande designated as ‘wild and scenic' is classified as suitable for contact recreation, for propagation of fish and wildlife, and for domestic raw water supply." They did note that "during storm-related stream-flow rises, high concentrations of fecal coliform bacteria can occur as the adjacent land surface is washed by rainfall runoff." In addition, "there has been some concern about water quality degradation related to the fluorspar processing plant at La Linda, Mexico," and with "mercury pollution emanating from an area of abandoned mercury mines in the Terlingua Creek drainage on the west side of Big Bend National Park." While these charges were difficult to confirm, the NPS found that "the most significant water quality problem in the area of the Rio Grande is the presence of DDT and its metabolites." The WSR planners learned that "concentrations of these compounds in excess of the levels recommended by the Food and Drug Administration have been found in Rio Grande fish near Presidio, Texas." The FDA believed that this came from Mexican irrigation return flows to the Rio Conchos, and "high levels of DDT residues seem to be concentrated in the area where the Rio Conchos joins the Rio Grande." [3]

Another resource issue that the planners detected while compiling data for WSR operations was air quality. "Preliminary information from Big Bend," wrote the planning team in 1981, "indicates that the area experiences decreased visibility in some directions, probably as a result of high altitude particulates originating from industrial facilities in El Paso, Texas; Carlsbad, New Mexico; and perhaps from northern Mexico." In addition, the planners noted emission of particulates from the Dupont Chemical Company's fluorspar mill at La Linda. Then the report prophesied that "impaired visibility and acid precipitation are potential air quality problems for the future, although both problems would result from activities distant from the Rio Grande Wild and Scenic River." [4]

The NPS's acknowledgment that it could not control any land along the riverbank also hampered planning for the WSR. A group of private landowners formed the "Texans for the Preservation of the Rio Grande" to stop the designation process. When that failed, said Judge Dudley Harrison, they approached lawmakers in Austin and Washington to force the park service to accept the limitations found in the 1981 report. By March of 1982, the NPS would instruct its regional office in Santa Fe to cancel implementation of the WSR plan, leaving the river with little funding and staff. Then in 1986, Congress amended the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act to permit "study" rivers like the Rio Grande to have an "interim boundary" that ran one-quarter mile from the average high-water mark. Jim Carrico, superintendent of Big Bend when this strategy was implemented, would recall a decade later that "the Rio Grande WSR was not negotiated ahead of time." He attributed its problems to the lack of public hearings, noting that "all action occurred at high levels." His agency engaged in "some arrogance," which "contributed to the ‘backlash' now toward the government." It did not surprise Carrico that the Interior secretary, James Watt, refused to press Congress in the early 1980s for resolution of the Rio Grande WSR boundary controversy. As a devotee of the "Sagebrush Rebellion," Watt and President Ronald Reagan took a dim view of expanded federal presence on private property. Thus it would fall to Jose Cisneros and his successor as superintendent, Frank Deckert, to revitalize planning for the WSR, and to establish better relations with local landowners as part of the new planning process. [5]

The second feature of 1980s border management that challenged efforts at peace and friendship involved the smuggling of narcotics from Mexico into the United States. Marty Ott, chief ranger at Big Bend in the mid-1980s, recalled that "drugs were an absolute real problem" for park rangers in 1983 when he accepted his assignment (and came back to the park where his father had been chief of maintenance in the late 1950s). Ott noted that "some folks chose to ignore the problem," while paranoia among others "created a sense of being overrun." The administration of President Reagan had promoted its "Just Say No" campaign against drug use in America, and the NPS found itself on the defensive at Big Bend as it had been in a decade earlier. Then a Mexican drug trafficker named Pablo Acosta (whom several park officials considered in league with Mexican drug agents) became what Ott called "an embarrassment to Mexican officials." The chief ranger believed that "politically, [Acosta] could no longer be tolerated." Thus the FBI sent agents from El Paso to inform Ott of an impending raid on Acosta's headquarters in the village of Santa Elena. Federal agents landed in helicopters on the American side of the Rio Grande, and watched as their Mexican counterparts "ran into a firefight of one hour." One agent was wounded, and darkness threatened the operation. Then Ott received word that Acosta had been killed, and the FBI asked him to pick up the body. Ott went to the Castolon store, purchased every sack of ice they had in stock, and flew across the river to escort Acosta's corpse to an American coroner. The chief ranger remembered more than a decade later the scene in Mexico when he landed, as "nearly all the residents of Santa Elena were lying down in the street." Jim Carrico added that he wondered at the time "how Santa Elena people judged this, as Acosta was a ‘Robin Hood' who gave money to the poor." [6]

The death of Pablo Acosta did not trigger discontent among the residents of Santa Elena and other border communities along the Rio Grande. But it did contribute to a growing sense that better relations with Mexico meant good business. In 1988, the park added a staff position (the "international cooperation specialist") to coordinate work with Mexican agencies and townspeople. Ramon Olivas worked with Bill Wendt (himself a former Big Bend ranger from the late 1950s) to develop cooperative training programs for employees of Mexican resource agencies involved in border areas. Olivas also established conferences between officials of both countries, and in the words of Dennis Vasquez, "served as the coordinator for the Big Bend ‘Good Will Ambassador' program with local Mexican communities." Then in October 1988, regional director John Cook met with Eliseo Mendoza, governor of the state of Coahuila, to sign "an agreement of good will acknowledging the benefits of cooperative efforts between the USNPS and the State of Coahuila in the areas of resource management." A month later, the park service and the Mexican secretariat for urban development and ecology (SEDUE) embarked upon a plan to develop "protected areas," which included training technical assistance, and research. [7]

The efforts of the Mexican affairs specialist caught the attention of NPS officials in Washington, who in 1991 asked Olivas to join Howard Ness to expand into other border parks in the Southwest. This collaboration would be housed in the city of Las Cruces, New Mexico (on the campus of New Mexico State University), and would be called the Mexican Affairs Office (MEAF). Dennis Vasquez would recall in 1994 that "as the environmental movement began to grow throughout Mexico, Big Bend National Park became more well known among Mexican governmental, non-governmental, and university officials as an example of a well established protected area and as a source for training and support materials." Olivas would relocate to Las Cruces, and apply his knowledge of border resource areas to NPS units in Arizona and New Mexico. Yet a sense developed at Big Bend that MEAF's gain was its loss, as diplomacy and broader bi-national issues replaced the local momentum that had promised much for Big Bend. Vasquez wrote in 1994 that "no ‘sister' park had been established, no solutions to cattle trespass had been achieved, and longstanding law enforcement problems and resource management concerns had not been resolved." [8]

To address the perceived decline in cross-border relations, superintendent Rob Arnberger instructed his staff in 1989, in the words of Dennis Vasquez, to restore the "grass-roots" approach initiated a decade earlier by Gil Lusk. "The programs would be designed to achieve specific products for Big Bend," said Vasquez, "as well as to continue nurturing neighborly relations." Among the first steps taken was identification of employees who were sensitive to cultural diversity, had a language proficiency in Spanish, and were "knowledgeable in the Hispanic culture." Arnberger wanted "an understanding of the entire staff of the importance of the constructive relations with our Mexican neighbors and an appreciation for cultural differences." The park then created a Mexican Affairs Team to "serve as key contacts with the small rural villages adjacent to the park to coordinate any number of activities that might come up from organizing health clinics to providing mechanical support for community water systems." Vasquez noted that "poor communications and inconsistent actions over the years have been the source of persistent difficulties." Educational outreach programs could "carry a message about the function and goals of the USNPS," and "highlight the significance of the natural and cultural resources which we share with our neighbors." The park's chief of interpretation realized that "generations of rural villagers have lived across the river from Big Bend National Park without hearing this message." Even controversies surrounding trespass livestock, drug traffic, and border crossings became part of the dialogue. "While these topics may have a negative connotation," wrote Vasquez, "the park has not shied away from these open discussions." Instead, "the regular official visits by Big Bend National Park staff to adjacent Mexican communities have opened lines of communication and helped create a sense of community." [9]

One unique feature of the renewed efforts at local cooperation was creation in 1989 of the joint Mexican-American firefighting unit known as "Project Diablos." Three years of wild-land fires at Big Bend placed the park's resources in jeopardy; a condition exacerbated, said Vasquez, by Big Bend's remoteness. "Through standard channels," wrote the chief of interpretation, "response time by qualified fire crews is a minimum of 12 to 30 hours." The park recognized that "there existed a pool of potential firefighters nearby, across the Rio Grande who were well suited for arduous fire fighting duty in the extreme heat and rough conditions of the Chihuahuan Desert." Turning to the Mexican villages that had supplied so many workers for American ranchers and government agencies in the past, Big Bend recruited some twenty men to become wild-land firefighters. "When the idea was posed to some of the men," recalled Vasquez, "they responded enthusiastically, stating that if they were given the opportunity they would work like ‘diablos' to prove their worth." Such a venture required the approval of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), as well as the U.S. Social Security Administration. The program operated for several years, until budget cuts in the mid-1990s eliminated the use of Mexican firefighters in the park. [10]

Changes on the American side of the Rio Grande in the late 1980s and early 1990s towards working with Mexico found a positive response among officials of the Mexican government. Gloria Uribe, a former staff member of the natural resource agency SEDUE (later renamed SEMARNAP), would recall in a 1999 interview in Ciudad Chihuahua, that during this time Mexican resource policy "shifted from forestry to desert studies." The National Institute of Ecology also turned from forest concerns to wildlife. "Environmental issues became more important to plans of management," said Uribe, "like air and water quality." This change emanated from "university professors from the United States and Europe," who "helped expand the consciousness of diversity." So to did an awareness of endangered species, "as did pride in being part of the five mega-diversity countries [a reference to international recognition of threatened ecological zones worldwide]." Early efforts to link Mexico's northern border with the environmental and national park ideas of the United States received attention with an agreement signed in 1992 in La Paz. "Sister cities and sister parks were promoted," said Uribe, and in Chihuahua "some people saw the need for conservation." When the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) was signed in 1994, work on protected areas and bi-national strategies of management accelerated. Chihuahua joined for the first time with its eastern neighbor, the state of Coahuila, to address the decades-old dream of an international park along the Rio Grande. Mexican planners, recalled Uribe, "tried to shift from urban programs to protected areas." Resources to accomplish this objective were not easy to find, leading the planners to conclude that "only communities can save these areas." [11]

Those resources did appear, however, in limited form after the signing of the NAFTA accord, as international agencies and non-governmental organizations included the Big Bend-Mexican park idea in their agendas. Dr. Alfonso LaFon, professor of natural resources management at La Universidad Autonoma de Chihuahua, recalled in a 1999 interview that his home state's willingness to work with Coahuila and the Mexican federal government helped overcome the obstacle of outside support for resource protection along the Rio Grande. "In the late 1980s," said LaFon, "the "World Bank began funding some studies" in Chihuahua. Then NAFTA "pushed increasing the protected areas." One strategy was "political," through the use of "decrees, and management of the land." Mexican authorities also had to work with ejido residents to educate them in better use of the land. Yet another issue facing LaFon and other resource officials in Mexico was the country's change of leadership every six years (known as the sexeno). Fortunately, the 1990s witnessed "the continuity of natural resources planning and NPS training." Officials like SEMARNAP director Julia Carrabias promoted a mixture of "conservation, research, administration, and education" to strengthen the presence in the Mexican government of environmental consciousness. Carrabias would work in the 1990s with her counterpart in the U.S. Interior department, Secretary Bruce Babbitt, to create and maintain international relations at their intermediate levels. In so doing, said LaFon, "making permanent relationships and education programs between the NPS and protected areas helps overcome policy." [12]

Reference to "policy" limitations on improved border relations included in the early 1990s the issue of electrical supply from the United States to Mexico, and the termination of the unofficial practice at Big Bend of issuing permisos (temporary passes for border crossings). The former involved plans by the governor of Coahuila, Eliseo Mendoza Berrueto, to create the protected area of Maderas del Carmen. A draft NPS memorandum of September 1990 regarding the international park concept noted that the governor's agenda included "drawing tourism and upgrading the quality of life for the residents of Boquillas and adjacent communities." Mendoza called for "rehabilitative work in Boquillas, the installation of a potable water system, open air restrooms, a visitor center, and the exportation of electricity through Big Bend National Park." Daniel L. Roth, a graduate student in the public affairs program at the University of Texas at Austin, wrote in his 1992 master's thesis of the opposition by American environmental groups to the electric transmission line across the Rio Grande. "The Audobon Society and the Sierra Club," said Roth, "met with the governor of Coahuila to support solar energy as a source for power in the area." These groups feared that the line would endanger the nesting of the peregrine falcon, while other organizations believed that the volume of electricity would allow the Mexican government to invite urban growth. Even "leftist group leaders and some farming groups" in Mexico, wrote Roth, "have recently opposed land reforms in Mexico, which may affect the ejido system, which in turn may affect park development." [13]

In the matter of permission slips for border crossings, Dennis Vasquez noted in 1994 that "for over 20 years, the USNPS staff at Big Bend National Park issued immigration permits on behalf of the USINS to Mexican nationals living adjacent to the park." Vasquez wrote that while the park service "had no official authority or jurisdiction in conducting this activity, it was done in the interest of providing a service to park neighbors who otherwise would have to travel over 100 miles to secure permits to travel within the United States." In October 1994, "this longstanding program was discontinued for a number of reasons," the most compelling being "the increased workload that the permit program entailed and the decrease in staff size." Vasquez conceded that "the discontinuance of the immigration permit function at Big Bend National Park has had a serious impact on [the] ability of Mexican nationals who have a right to travel in the United States to secure immigration permits. As of 1994, Big Bend had protested this situation to the INS, but to no avail. [14]

The year 1994 also marked the turning point for Mexico's commitment to the decades-old dream of a bi-national park. On November 7 of that year, Mexican president Carlos Salinas de Gortari announced establishment of the two protected areas across the Rio Grande: the Maderas del Carmen in Coahuila, and the Canon de Santa Elena in Chihuahua. The former consisted of 514,701 acres (208,381 hectares), while the latter comprised 684,706 acres (277,209 hectares). In extending the status of protection over this 1.1 million-acre area, the Mexican government gave the NPS and Interior department the opportunity to develop strategies for collaboration in matters of resource management, scholarly research, and eco-tourism development. Julio Carrera, a longtime natural resource official for the state of Coahuila, became director of the Maderas del Carmen region, while Pablo Dominguez assumed direction of Chihuahua's portion. Dominguez spoke in a 1999 interview in Ciudad Chihuahua about the benefits of partnership with the United States. "On maps of the World Wildlife Fund," said Dominguez, "there are very few disturbances to Canon de Santa Elena land." His hope was to "make some kind of deal on correct use of natural resources without eliminating the historic land uses." In collaboration with La Universidad Autonoma de Chihuahua, SEMARNAP developed a program of management (Programa de Manejo) that explained the region's unique natural and cultural resources, and offered options for visitor services that did not conflict with "the consensus of the people." [15]

Because of his concern for international relations, as well as his commitment to protection of cultural resources, Big Bend superintendent Jose Cisneros made it a signal feature of his management to advance the cause of the bi-national park. In July 1996, Cisneros escorted a party of American and Mexican natural-resource officials to the international peace park at Waterton Lakes-Glacier National Park, on the border between Montana and Alberta. Writing three years later in the magazine Environment, Cisneros and his chief of interpretation and visitors services, Valerie J. Naylor, concluded that "the group was impressed with the international peace park designation and with the collaboration between the two parks." Cisneros, his American colleagues, and the Mexican officials left Waterton-Glacier after four days of study believing that "such a relationship was possible in the Big Bend region." In February 1997, Mexico's SEMARNAP sent to the U.S. Department of the Interior "a proposal for the establishment of protected natural areas of bi-national ecosystems in the Big Bend area." This region then would become the model for other shared park sites on the Mexican-United States border. [16]

Mexico's gesture required consideration by entities other than Big Bend National Park or the NPS, but the statement indicated to Cisneros that the dream of a borderless park was closer to reality than at any time since the 1930s. The superintendent remarked in retirement in 2000 that his goal had been to move border issues to the forefront of the discussion about Big Bend's future; a strategy that he believed had borne fruit as the park expanded its general management plan research under his successor, Frank Deckert. Flora, fauna, and people did not recognize the artificiality of the boundary line, noted Cisneros, nor did history show any benefit to keeping people apart in the Big Bend country. He applauded the efforts of Rotary International to provide for the bi-national area of Big Bend (including the NPS unit, Texas's Big Bend Ranch State Park, and the Mexican protected areas) what it had acquired for Waterton-Glacier in 1932: the status of an international peace park. Cisneros also spoke in his 1999 article on the actions of the World Conservation Union "encouraging nations to collaborate in the management of trans-boundary ecosystem." Cisneros marveled that "today, Big Bend National Park, the adjoining Protected Areas for Flora and Fauna in Mexico, and nearby state lands protect more than two million acres in the heart of the Chihuahuan Desert." If his successors could maintain the dream of Franklin Roosevelt, Lazaro Cardenas, Everett Townsend, and many advocates of peace on the border, "the ecosystem will be the ultimate beneficiary of coordinated bi-national efforts." On that day, Big Bend would have risen above its many challenges of nature and history, and would represent what is often said of national parks: the best idea that America ever had. [17]

Figure 23: NPCI Castolon Store (1961)

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Last Updated: 03-Mar-2003